NFL playoffs: AFC rivals must go through Patriots; NFC West set for a wild finish
AFC teams seeking a Super Bowl berth must go through Foxborough, a place where Tom Brady doesn't lose.
Among the teams chasing the New England Patriots are the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots secured home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by routing the Buffalo Bills, 34-3, on Sunday. Brady hasn't lost a home game in the last 27 regular-season outings, and the Patriots (13-2) are unbeaten in 16 consecutive regular-season games at Gillette Stadium since losing to Pittsburgh on Nov. 30, 2008, with Matt Cassel replacing the injured Brady.
But the Patriots lost their only playoff game last season, routed at home by Baltimore.
"We got a W, and that's our biggest present, being able to come into the locker room and being able to see that hat and T-shirt," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "That's something to be proud of."
Atlanta and Chicago already have qualified for the postseason in the NFC. The Bears have won the North Division and are in position for a first-round bye. If the Falcons (12-2) win at home against New Orleans on Monday night, they will have NFC home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as well as the South title. The defending champion Saints (10-4) would earn a playoff spot with a victory.
In the AFC, Baltimore (11-4) still could win the North Division — the Ravens are tied with Pittsburgh, which already has a playoff berth, but does not own the tiebreaker with the Steelers in the division. The Ravens won at Cleveland, 20-10, and must beat Cincinnati at home while Pittsburgh loses at Cleveland next Sunday to win the division.
"It doesn't matter [what Cleveland does]," Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The only thing you can ask for in this business is to get in the dance. We're in and we have to take care of business against Cincinnati."
Failing to win the division means Baltimore gets a wild card, something the New York Jets already own. Although the Jets (10-5) were beaten, 38-34 ,at Chicago, they qualified when Jacksonville lost to Washington, 20-17, in overtime. Just like last season, when the Jets went to the AFC title game, they will finish second to the Patriots in the AFC East.
Kansas City earned its first AFC West championship since 2003 when it beat Tennessee 34-17 and San Diego lost at Cincinnati. The Chargers had won the last four division crowns.
The Chiefs improved from 4-10 last year to 10-5 with a home game against Oakland remaining.
Jacksonville's loss did not finish it off in the AFC South. Indianapolis is 9-6 after a 31-26 win at Oakland, one game in front of the Jags. That division will be decided by next weekend's games: Tennessee at Indy, Jacksonville at Houston.
In the NFC, although Seattle was routed, 38-15 ,at Tampa Bay, the Seahawks can win the weak NFC West by defeating St. Louis at Qwest Field next Sunday. Should that happen, the Seahawks, currently 6-9, would be the first division winner in NFL history with a losing record. The Rams are 7-8 after a 25-17 win over San Francisco that eliminated the 49ers from contention.
The Buccaneers (9-6) are alive for a wild card, but need to win next Sunday at New Orleans and get lots of help.
Philadelphia (10-4) clinched the NFC East with the New York Giants' 45-17 loss at Green Bay. The Eagles' night game against Minnesota was moved to Tuesday night because of blizzard conditions in Philadelphia.
Green Bay and the Giants both are 9-6, but the Packers hold the tiebreaker for a wild card thanks to their win over New York. The Bucs need to have a better overall record than those teams to get in.
Photo: Bills safety Donte Whitner tries to strip the ball from New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second quarter Sunday. Gronkowski had two touchdown catches in New England's victory. Credit: Luc Leclerc / US Presswire